5 lessons from living with chronic illness

5 lessons from living with chronic illness

Until last year, I’d never met a physical challenge that I couldn’t push through—whether it be lack of sleep, hangover, or illness. I could always muster the will to keep plugging along. But sometime in the last year, I started experiencing chronic pain, fatigue, and brain fog.

There were days when sitting at my desk and typing was just too much. Even if I could force myself to be in my office, my brain would be so cloudy that I could barely complete a single work-related thought.

Earlier this year, I was finally diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis—a form of arthritis that attacks the back and other joints in the body. As a counselor who preaches self-kindness and the importance of acknowledging our emotions, the shame and self-criticism that overwhelmed me felt like a double whammy.

I could no longer choose to simply push through. I needed to find new coping skills, pinpoint new criteria for what it meant to be productive, and tailor-make new working routines. Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me.

1. Being kind to myself

I spent the first few months after my diagnosis beating myself up. I was still operating under my old motto of “I can push through anything.” Now, I’m slowly learning to embrace my condition rather than rail against it. When uncomfortable feelings like sadness, disappointment, anger, and hopelessness come up for me, I take a moment to acknowledge its presence instead of pushing those feelings away.

One of the most vexing challenges of this condition (and most chronic pain conditions) is finding the fine line between underdoing (which causes joint pain) and overdoing (which also causes joint pain). Learning to read my body within these constraints has gifted me a new appreciation for it, which is something I took for granted for too many years. Now instead of treating it like an enemy that I need to overcome, I treat it like a friend. I’m not allowed to take advantage of it, and I need to be honest when I’m communicating with it.

2. Taking regular breaks

Taking regular breaks every hour has been a crucial act in staying productive and prevents me from paying the price of pain or exhaustion later. Instead of plugging away at my desk for hours and getting lost on social media, I set a timer on my computer to remind me to physically remove myself from the screen. I stretch and connect with my dog or family.

Some days my chronic pain forces me into a more extended break. I still find it difficult to give myself permission to do this, but I’ve learned to plan for that possibility and now increase my expectations for how long a task will take me. Instead of allowing 20 minutes as I would have in the past, I allot 40.

3. I learned to be honest about my limitations

If you are someone who prides yourself on pushing through, being honest about your limitations can be challenging. I used to tiptoe an elusive line between being kind to myself about my limitations and calling myself whiny. But I’ve been able to find new, creative solutions since I was forced to be honest about what I can and can no longer do.

For example, it takes me twice as long to do what I used to do. I used to schedule 15 minutes between client sessions. Now, I know that I need 30 minutes to move, breathe, stretch, and write client notes so I can be my best for my next client and myself.

4. I learned to pay attention to my breath

I know we’ve all heard it before, but paying attention to my breath has been a game changer. I tend to live in my head and often forget that I have a body. I hold a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, which causes my arthritis to flare. When I focus on my breath, I can remember that I have a body and notice what areas are tight or what needs to be stretched. This is also something I can practice when I can’t take a break, like at a social gathering, meeting a deadline, or working with a client.

5. I found a support system

Having a chronic condition can be a lonely place to be in. Because so many symptoms are invisible, people have a hard time understanding why it’s challenging for those with chronic conditions to adhere to “normal” work standards. That’s why finding a support system is critical. While it can be challenging to find the right one for you, support groups are available. I’ve personally found online communities helpful. However, I also learned that spending too long on them can lead to a cycle of “compare and despair.”

I’ve adjusted my lifestyle to cope with ankylosing spondylitis, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have difficult days. The uncertainty of living with a chronic illness still frustrates me. I still have moments where it’s hard to accept that I will be dealing with this health issue for the rest of my life.

The small wins I’ve experienced so far give me hope that I (and others like me) don’t have to feel held back by circumstances. I believe that when we learn to accept our limitations rather than rail against them, we can discover a deeper sense of fulfillment from our work and our relationships. And who knows? Perhaps we can demonstrate what a kinder, more sustainable definition of success looks like.


Nancy Jane Smith is a licensed professional counselor with 11 years in private practice and has spent 20+ years working as a counselor/coach.

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